Lillian C. Zevin, Publisher and Friend of Literature, 1907–1993
1991 SPECIAL CITATION FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE ARTS
As the daughter of Alfred H. Cahen, Lillian Zevin was born into the world of publishing.
In fact, it is easy to speculate that Lillian inherited her passion for books from her father, who was famous for walking across Europe from Poland before arriving in London in 1898, according to a World Publishing Company history. He had studied the printing and bookbinding business in Poland, Russia, Germany and Holland. In London, he was employed with a company that printed pamphlets, did library bindings and repaired manuscripts for museums and private collectors.
Cahen left London in 1902, immigrating to Ohio, where he worked for the Saalfield Publishing Company in Akron, before launching his own business. In 1928, he acquired the World Syndicate Publishing Company in New York City and began publishing Bibles, dictionaries and children’s books. Shortly thereafter, Cahen changed the firm's name to World Publishing. The company was the largest publisher of Bibles and dictionaries in the United States by 1940.
As a teenager in the mid-1920s, Lillian began helping out the family business in any way she could. She decided to leave Cleveland Heights High School before graduation to assume a full-time position at the company. Lillian worked as an assistant and secretary before finally becoming an editor.
“She was very interested in literature and learning and had a very inquisitive mind,” said her younger sister, Shirley Beal Gegenheimer. “So that led her to extensive reading and an interest in providing the same sources for other people.”
Gegenheimer speculates that, had Lillian gone to college, she might have become a physician. “She was very interested in medicine. I was just a child, but I remember that she had a group of doctor friends who were all interns and residents at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and they were frequent visitors at our house.”
Lillian was also an accomplished whistler and, in her late teens and early 20s, she displayed her musical talents in occasional radio appearances.
In 1933, Lillian married Ben D. Zevin, who joined World Publishing and rose to the position of advertising manager and then president in 1945. Born in the Ukraine, in 1901, Zevin had immigrated to New York City with his family in the early part of the 20th century. He had operated his own advertising agency at the age of 21 and then managed a trade paper before moving to Cleveland.
After her marriage, Lillian became editor-in-chief at World Publishing, a pioneering position for a woman. The couple built the company into one of the country’s leading book publishers in the period during and after World War II. They also reared four children: Bernice (Eaton), Rima (Parkhurst), Jacquelyn and Robert. “I consider my mother a renaissance woman, because of the fact that she managed our family, worked as an editor and was a good businesswoman,” Jacqueline has said. “She was a good gardener, an excellent decorator, and she studied and did some sculpting for a while. She was also a marvelous cook who loved to entertain."
Under the Zevans' guidance, the company grew significantly, from sales of $600,000 in 1935 to an estimated $17 million in 1965. Building on the firm’s national reputation for publishing Bibles, Ben and Lillian transformed World Publishing into one of the premier dictionary publishers, as well, beginning with their introduction of the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language in the 1940s. In 1953, the firm introduced the College Edition of the New World Dictionary, which quickly became the leading college dictionary in the country.
“Lillian was a wonderful person, very charming,” recalled Lillian's nephew, Alfred B. Cahen, a poet and retired college teacher who worked for World Publishing for 20 years, starting at the age of 14.“She was very instrumental in the company’s success. She read and evaluated manuscripts until the end of her career."
“She had an eye for the unusual,” Robert Zevin said. “So she would always find offbeat, unusual books that other publishers might have rejected. Often they were successful, and of course, sometimes they weren’t.”
"Lillian was always open to new ideas and was known for her impeccable taste in writing," observed Mary Louise Hahn, who served as chairperson of the Cleveland Arts Prize from 1990–2000. "One of the people that she really encouraged and nurtured was David Guralnik, who then became editor-in-chief, and it was his great work that became the New World Dictionary.”
In 1963, much to Lillian’s dismay, World Publishing was sold to Times Mirror. Resold to William Collins Sons, Ltd., which was disbanded in 1980, the dictionary division was acquired by Simon & Schuster. To preserve World Publishing's legacy, Lillian donated her entire collection of its books to the special collections library at Kent (Ohio) State University.
For helping to establish Cleveland as a publishing center and supporting regional authors, she was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize's Special Citation in 1991. "Lillian pushed World Publishing to focus on new voices," Hahn has explained, "making a serious contribution to the literary life of Cleveland and beyond"
Cleveland Arts Prize
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